SW grad Blake Snell one of three finalists for American League Cy Young Award

Friday, November 9, 2018

Blake Snell pitching in the 2011 State
semi-finals at Camas
Photo by Wayne Pridemore
By Ryan Phelan

When Blake Snell came back to Shorewood High School in October, it wasn’t to bask in his own limelight as one of Major League Baseball’s best pitchers this year, It was to watch his brother David play football.

“He was there on Senior Night for his brother, and at first I didn’t recognize him because he had his hood up over his hair,” said Vicki Gorman, the school’s athletic director. 
“He came for his brother. He wanted it to be about his brother. He didn’t want it to be about him.”

Like it or not, it might be all about him soon. Snell, who graduated from Shorewood in 2011, just finished off his first all-star season for the Tampa Bay Rays, and is one of three finalists for the American League Cy Young Award.

Snell is a frontrunner for the prize, but for Snell’s high school coach, Wyatt Tonkin, and the Shoreline community, his potential for greatness was apparent, both in his ability and his character.

He had the ability to strike out 19 batters in seven innings, but his coach remembers him for how much fun he made the game when he wasn’t playing it.

“He had the certain intangibles you just couldn’t teach,” said Wyatt Tonkin, Shorewood High School’s baseball coach since 1999. “The four years went by so fast, but it was really remarkable and it was fun.”

Wyatt Tonkin, Shorewood High School’s baseball coach, and Vicki Gorman, the school’s athletic director, stand beneath Shorewood High School’s retired jerseys on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. Blake Snell’s jersey was retired by the school in 2016. Photo credit: Ryan Phelan

Snell’s intangibles exuded themselves in his leadership, Tonkin said. He led by example and on the field effectively paired a competitive fire with lighthearted fun. People gathered around him in the locker room.

Now in just his third season in Major League Baseball, the 25-year-old left-hander won 21 games -- the best in the majors -- while posting an earned-run average of 1.89, the best in the American League. For Snell, who jumped straight from high school into professional baseball, it has been a breakout year.

Even back when he pitched for Shorewood, the stats spoke for themselves.

“When we retired his number, (See previous article) I had to go into the gym, and it's was a packed gym,” Tonkin said. “We were playing Shorecrest, our archrivals, and I had to read his stats. They were like cartoon numbers. I said people aren’t going to believe this.”

Over his three years on the varsity team, Snell earned an ERA of 1.38, and struck out 218 batters over 131.2 innings. He went undefeated his senior year and won eight games, with a ERA of 1.00, which was fifth in Washington state. Four of those wins were complete-game efforts, in which Snell pitched all nine innings.

Blake Snell 2011 Shorewood
Photo by Wayne Pridemore
Despite Snell’s success on the field, Tonkin offered just as much praise for Snell’s character off of the pitcher’s mound.

“He’s a fun guy,” Tonkin said. “He is a jokester, a prankster and a happy-go-lucky guy. He had a smile that nobody could resist. 
But once you handed him that ball, and he went between those lines, he became a lion. He would compete like nobody else. You just had that feeling when he was on the mound that we couldn’t lose.”

Over the years, the Shorewood baseball team has been blessed with talented pitchers, Tonkin said. The kind you don’t need to press to work hard.

“I think that's one of the reasons why our program has been successful, and it's one of the things I emphasize,” Tonkin said. “It’s not too tough when you get kids like Blake.”

Shorewood High School baseball coach Wyatt Tonkin stands next to the school’s trophy case on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. Tonkin has been the coach since 1999. Photo credit: Ryan Phelan 

Coach Tonkin’s life has long been rooted in baseball. He pitched for O’Dea High School in Seattle before playing for Bellevue Community College and later the University of Washington. In 1976, he was drafted by the Atlanta Braves and spent three seasons pitching in the minor leagues before being released.

“When your glass just shatters, you have to pick it up and start over,” Tonkin said, sliding some keys across the table as if they’re a pink slip. “You’ve geared your whole life to play baseball, and all of a sudden they say you can't anymore.”

But baseball is still there and his Shorewood cap and polo shirt say it before he does. He credits his wife Alice for giving him the confidence and motivation to get into coaching.

“Once I got into it I just couldn’t get enough,” Tonkin said. “I just loved the heck out of it. I loved the kids and the atmosphere. It's kind of fun to set the direction and build your own program.”

The trophy case contains several awards and pieces of memorabilia from the baseball team at Shorewood High School on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018. This included a ball signed by coach Wyatt Tonkin following his 300th career win in 2017. Photo credit: Ryan Phelan

Tonkin has spent 21 seasons at the helm of the program. In April 2017, he collected his 300th career win for the team he has spent his entire coaching career. (See previous article) That same year, he was elected to the Washington State Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

Tonkin’s openness to new skills, methods and inspirational tactics has enabled the program’s success under his tenure, Gorman said. He often speaks at coaches clinics around Washington and Oregon.

“It’s how much you learn after you think you know it all that really counts,” Tonkin said.

In a coaching career filled with successes, one of Tonkin’s greatest moments came in 2010, when his team made a surprise run to the state championship on the backs of its young pitchers, including Snell. Along the way, Snell beat Puyallup High School, the top-ranked team in the state, in the first round of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association Class 4A regionals. Ultimately, Shorewood made it to the state championship at Safeco Field.

“We go to warmup and I get called to go underneath the stadium for a coin flip,” Tonkin said. “Then I come out to hit infield, and there is just a sea of blue -- from way up behind third base all the way behind home plate.”

Blake Snell’s retired jersey hangs in Shorewood
High School on Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018.
Snell was drafted 52nd overall
in the 2011 MLB June Amateur Draft.
Photo credit: Ryan Phelan
They lost that game but laid the groundwork for the following season, in which the team won 24 games and lost just three. Snell contributed heavily toward that win total, striking out 118 batters over 56 innings pitched.

“I never really thought at that point when we were coaching that he’d be a Cy Young candidate,” said Shea Tonkin, Wyatt’s son and former assistant coach for Shorewood. 
“But he definitely was Cy Young quality when we coached him. That's for sure.”

“We’re kind of a small community even though we’re right next to Seattle,” Gorman said. “But the Shorewood community came out big-time for the team.”

Snell has not forgotten Shorewood. In his spare time, he has come back to Shorewood to help out the school’s basketball team, which he also played on in high school, as an assistant. 

A professional athlete, particularly one as hardworking as Snell, working with players imparts valuable lessons, not just for sports, but for life itself, Wyatt Tonkin said.

“When he did come to Seattle this year, everywhere I looked there were guys there who had played for us, and they were all there to see Blake,” he said. “He’s modest, but he also understands that a lot of kids are looking up to him. He is so much a part of the community.”

Snell was in town when the Rays played the Mariners on June 3. He pitched his first major-league start in Safeco Field against one of his idols, Felix Hernandez, who won the Cy Young Award when Snell was a senior in high school. On that day, Snell struck out his first seven batters.

“What I’ve learned from kids like Blake is that for an athlete like him, it's not a mindset, it's a lifestyle,” he said. “When he was a junior, and he pitched at Safeco Field he said, ‘Coach, I’m going to be here again one day.’”
“He was serious.”


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